Everyone's seen it on drink menus and heard the phrase ad nauseum. But what exactly is a "craft" cocktail? And how is that different from a classic cocktail? Or an artisanal cocktail? Or just a mixed drink? Eater asked 14 experts in the field – writers, bartenders, consultants, mixologists, managers, bar owners, and the like – what they think of when they hear the (overused) phrase "craft cocktail." Here's what they had to say about it.
Dan Silverman, Prince of Petworth, editor of PoPville: "Expensive, sometimes delicious but not necessarily. I once tried a pickled herring flavored martini, and I freaking love pickled herring, and I love martinis for that matter, and I couldn't get more than two sips down... Maybe I'm old school but I'll take a 'classic cocktail' over a 'craft cocktail' 9 times out of 10."
Dani Paulson, Bartender at soon-to-open Second State: "When I hear the phrase 'craft cocktail' I think about history. The classics all have a story behind them, even if parts of that story have been lost or embellished along the way. That's part of what makes classics so interesting. When you look at cocktail history in old books, it's evident that the bartenders who crafted these drinks understood the value of quality spirits, fresh juices, and good ice."
Dustin Beruta, General Manager at Cashion's Eat Place: "To me, craft always begins with the product. Whether a company is large or small, understanding the process by which they produce their spirits allows you to understand both whether it's a spirit worth using, and also the best ways to use it. Knowing the difference between a pot-stilled gin or column-stilled gin makes all the difference in what kind of cocktail you might make."
Derek Brown, Owner of Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, and other bars: "I think the short answer is that when I hear 'craft cocktail' I think of the revolution that has ensued. I don't know how much people really think about just how different it was ten short years ago when we were at the tipping point, but the art of bartending and craft cocktails had languished since Prohibition. That's almost 100 years ago now. While there have always been good bartenders scattered throughout bars and restaurants, getting good cocktails was no easy task. Then a group of people from bartenders like Dale Degroff and Jim Hewes to hobbyists like Ted Haigh and Robert Hess started disseminating information and grew the craft. Today, it seems like a trend in some ways. But it's really just the tip of the iceberg. Cocktails have become a serious part of the culinary world and they're here to stay."
Erin Goodman, Bartender at Roofers Union: "If you've ever received something handmade, you can truly feel that it's something special. You can sense that the person who made it really dedicated their time and effort. That is how I feel about craft cocktails. Mixologists are craftsmen and creating a cocktail is an art that's carefully thought out."
Fabian Malone, Ronin Bar Consultants: "Ultimately I believe that the cocktails we drink should be made with quality spirits and the freshest ingredients. I don't believe in artificially flavored spirits. I pay homage to classic craft cocktails as well as creating new cocktails for today. Craft cocktails taste best when made with passion and excitement. But above all else — a craft cocktail must be fun to drink."
Johnna Rowe, Food Blogger: "My joking self wants to say a craft cocktail is one full of ingredients I have no clue about or how they ended up in the same glass together. My serious self thinks of craft drinks as a way for one to express themselves through liquid flavors: much like you use your body as a canvas for your fashion sense, crafty cocktails say how creative you can get with the palate...Show off your inner van Gogh!"
Justin Abad, Partner at Cashion's Eat Place: "Craft cocktails shouldn't necessarily imply complicated ingredients or over-ambitious 'expressions' from the crafter. Rather, a craft cocktail (to me) involves a thoughtful examination of the story and tradition behind the cocktail."
Kayleigh Kulp, Author of Booze for Babes: The Smart Woman's Guide to Drinking Spirits Right: "When I think 'craft' cocktail, I think of a drink that 1. has thought behind it, 2. uses the highest quality ingredients possible and 3. features silky, harmonious flavors. It's easy to get one or two of those things, but not all three! When you do, that's when you know you've really got a true craft cocktail."
Kristen Hartke, Managing Editor of Edible DC: "I would say that the word 'craft' implies something handmade — but all cocktails are, of course, handmade. But it's kind of the difference between paint-by-numbers and a carefully-conceived original painting - the craft cocktail is one that allows the bartender some creative license, by layering flavors in a new way, even when working off of an old recipe, and highlighting ingredients that can be unfamiliar and making them more accessible. As with all art, nothing is ever truly original, so the challenge lies in taking a familiar concept and making it seem completely new."
Kyle McNeel, Assistant General Manager and Mixologist at The Heights: "When we call something 'craft', we're trying to distinguish it in some sense from what the other guys are doing. We're trying to bring along the idea that greater care and attention were given to the creation of the 'craft' product. ('Artisanal' is used in much the same way.) To call something 'craft' invokes the idea of a craftsperson, someone skilled in and knowledgeable of his or her field of practice."
Lyn Holland, Bar Manager at 1905: ""I think that the term 'craft cocktail' brings to my mind creating a drink that is made from mostly small batch produced spirits (or beer and even wine) that are typically independently owned, hopefully even locally owned. The cocktails are also measured out to create a delicately balanced drink where you taste all the ingredients without one overwhelming the others."
Trevor Frye, Beverage Director at Jack Rose Dining Saloon: "My definition of a craft cocktail is one that is well thought-out, with balanced flavor profiles, made with fresh and home ingredients and presented well. Craft cocktails can apply to newly created cocktails and classic as well."
Vance Henderson, Beverage and Night Life Manager at Cuba Libre: "When I hear the phrase 'craft cocktail', I immediately think of a few things: time, thought, details and quality ingredients. All are instrumental in the process of creating something spectacular. The end goals are to produce a beverage that is delicious and that you can be proud of - it's a work of art."